For many first-generation Latinx students, there exists a pipeline of obstacles to accessing higher education. From having a lack of counselors in their schools to living in financially unstable homes, applying to universities and financial aid can have many barriers. Even after being admitted, the systems at higher learning institutions provide their own sets of hurdles for first-gen students.
Perhaps this is why we are sometimes surprised by success stories, such as that of a Latina attending Harvard.
None of this is because first-generation students cannot thrive in spaces of academia. These challenges, in particular, are institutional because universities are built on the assumption that their students come with a certain knowledge of navigating their systems. Universities and colleges have an obligation to make their degree programs more accessible, which includes dismantling the privilege of legacy.
Nevertheless, several first-generation students succeed in obtaining their degrees, and considering the struggles, these are certainly stories to celebrate. Take Amy Hernandez Turcios, for example. She is a Guatemalan-American, first-generation student from Los Angeles. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and she was able to attend first the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard Business School. She has worked on Wall Street and is now continuing her career as a consultant with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). This is her story.
How and why did you decide to go to school out of state?
I’m the first in my family to go to college, so I kind of had to figure out the whole process by myself—everything from the SATs to how to fill out applications.
I knew that I wanted to study business for two reasons. One is that my grandpa used to have a motorcycle business back in Guatemala and he would always tell me about it. I just love the entrepreneurial spirit around that. Two, my mom used to sell Avon and Mary Kay growing up, and I would always love going with her trying to sell the latest lipstick and all of that. I loved writing the receipts and calculating taxes.
I remember one day Googling “colleges for business,” and a list of the top 10 showed up and at the top was “The University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School.” So I applied to college through QuestBridge, a nonprofit that helps high-achieving, low-income students get to the country’s top universities. Through them, I was able to get a full-ride scholarship to attend Penn, which is incredible because I would not have gone to college if I didn’t get some sort of scholarship because my parents couldn’t afford it.
Your experiences sound very challenging, so what strategies did you use to succeed?
I’m first-gen, low-income. It’s really important for me to point that out because when I first got to Penn, I hid from the fact that I was low-income. I was really ashamed of the fact that I came from a very humble community. I never wanted to be discovered because I already felt out of place just being from California, being Latina, and then on top of that, I was low-income. Now I embrace that label because when I was in college, I really didn’t.
Back to your question on how did, I succeed or what strategies did I use. It’s funny because I wish this wasn’t the answer, but honestly, I followed what people were doing. That kind of goes against what I advocate nowadays, which is “haz ruido” or “make noise.” But I do think it is important to learn from your surroundings, and that’s what I did.
At Wharton, which is an undergrad business school, the majority of people wanted to do one of two things. They wanted to do investment banking or consulting, and that was it. I had no idea what those things were, but I tuned into my surroundings and followed the herd. Starting freshman year, I would go to the career conferences and events that different companies had, just to learn a little bit more about the world. Then as I learned more about the different career paths, that’s when I started to create my own thesis of why I wanted to go into those careers. The key tip there for emerging Latinx leaders who are navigating college is to tune in to what is going on around you and then from there figure out what you want to do.
At both of the institutions you’ve been at, Penn and now Harvard Business School, what are some positive and negative experiences?
The thing that maybe wasn’t the most enjoyable or wasn’t the best for me was the fact that in both situations, especially in the beginning of Harvard, I felt like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t belong. It was because I was Latina, because I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, because I was the first in my family to go to college and that I had never really had exposure to this new setting.
I grew up with this saying of “calladita te ves más bonita.” Harvard helped me break out of that because in order to do well in class, you have to speak up, and you have to disagree, and that is something that I had so much trouble with because I never wanted to be a contrarian. I never wanted to go against the grain and not follow the herd, which was totally new for me.
The positive experience was finding my voice and really owning who I was, and owning what I bring to the table. And for me, that culminated at Harvard with sharing my story publicly. I was able to share it, my second year, with the whole HBS community. I was very open with where I come from and my humble beginnings. That was probably one of my best moments across both schools — finally being super proud and empowered about my background.
What would you say to young Latinas who want to get to that point now and who may be in the position you were in back then?
Start with baby steps. For example, raise your hand. Say the thing that’s on your mind. If there’s something that you disagree with, respectfully disagree with that thing during a meeting or at school.
I’m trying to build a community for us through “@hazruidoAmy.” I’m trying to “make noise,” I’m trying to be a voice for the Latinx community and to show that “it” — The American Dream — is possible. If you look at a lot of my posts, it’s about me sharing my personal stories about growth that include my trials and tribulations. I think it’s really important for us to see those stories of each of us.
Lastly, as you keep being successful in your own pathway, your own journey, your own adventures, help the generation behind you as a way to give back because that’s the only way that we’re going to build or create wealth in the Latinx community. My whole life mission is to elevate Latinx leadership in the U.S.
How do you propose to continue doing this and continue inspiring the Latinx community?
That is something that I’m still 100% figuring out, and that’s why I decided to do consulting. In consulting, you take high-level business problems, and you break them down into digestible pieces so that you can actually execute on them. That’s what I’m hoping to do because there’s a high-level problem of lack of Latinx representation among executives.